Memory / Emigration (Custom House Quay)

Two of the most interesting contrasts between the Finnish and Irish cases are in the (e)migration which occurred during the famines, and of the subsequent memorialisation of the catastrophes. Emigration from Finland in the 1860s – particularly to North America – was extremely limited. There were very few opportunities to travel across the Atlantic, and the emigration that occurred was generally to locations within the Russian Empire. The main narrative in Finland – in contemporary accounts as well as in subsequent folk memory and literature – was of internal migration: chaotic, unplanned vagrancy around the country (pictured below, Maaseudun Tulevaisuus, 16 Mar. 1950). This internal migration led not only led to an increase in mortality through the spread of highly contagious diseases, in many cases it led to death in the freezing conditions of the winter of 1867-68. As Alex Hijmans commented in a recent review of Aki Ollikainen’s novel, Nälkävuosi (translated into English as White Hunger in 2016) “Samhlaigh Gorta Mór na hÉireann agus brat sneachta anuas air” (“imagine the Great Irish Famine with a covering of snow”) as a way of comprehending the suffering in 1860s Finland.

Ollikainen was inspired to write his short novel when he chanced upon a local memorial to the 1860s “Great Hunger Years” in a churchyard in central Finland. In discussing this type of commemoration, Irish historians have again posited considerable contrasts between Ireland and Finland. Mary Daly wrote of the Finns’ “amnesia”, and Cormac Ó Gráda called the 1860s Finnish famine “unduly neglected.” While it is true that commemoration on a national level is muted – particularly noticeable as we now approach the 150th anniversary – I have nevertheless found 78 memorials around Finland, and it can be argued that on a local level the memories of those harsh years are very much alive. The presence of a Home rule government in Helsinki, however, meant that the historical narrative developed along very different lines from Ireland (or, indeed, Ukraine), where a dominant “Other” came to be blamed for the catastrophes. For details and photos of some of these Finnish memorials, and a discussion of the comparative context with Ireland, see my recent article at: https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/179363 The discussion of famine memorials – their form, date of establishment, location etc., is an excellent point of departure for discussing wider issues of national identity.

The memorial at Haapajärvi, which inspired Aki Ollikainen’s novel Nälkävuosi (2012).

(As a postscript, a subsequent relief campaign for famine in Finland – run by the New York Christian Herald in 1902-3, demonstrated the new potential for Finns to emigrate). Nice images below. Finland continued to be a focus for international famine aid, not least because of its geopolitically & economically important position on the western edge of the Russian Empire.